Deuterium Content of Snow as an Index to Winter Climate in the Sierra Nevada Area

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Science  19 May 1972:
Vol. 176, Issue 4036, pp. 790-793
DOI: 10.1126/science.176.4036.790


The winter of 1968-69 produced two to three times the amount of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada area, California and Nevada, as the winter of 1969-70. The deuterium content in snow cores collected at the end of each winter at the same sites, which represents the total snowfall of each interval, shows a depletion in 1968-69 of approximately 20 per mil. The higher snowfall in 1968-69 and the depletion of deuterium can be explained by an uncommonly strong westward flow of cold air over and down the western slopes of the Sierras, which interacted with an eastward flow of moist Pacific air that overrode and mixed with the cold air; this resulted in precipitation that occurred in greater than normal amounts and at a lower than normal temperature. Pluvial periods of the Pleistocene may have had the same shift in air-mass trajectory as the wet 1968-69 year. Snow cores collected in the norrmal 1970-71 winter have deuterium concentrations that resemble those of the normal 1969-70 winter. Small and nonsystematic differences in samples from these two normal winters are due to variations in climatic character as well as to factors inherent in the sampling sites.